For decades, Iran has formed relationships with proxy militias across the Middle East under the guise of assisting locals in a fight against Western imperialism. Yet, recent protests in Iraq and Lebanon cast Iran as colonizer rather than a liberator. From Beirut to Baghdad, citizens are revolting against their Persian overlords and the sectarian political structures they’ve established.
In the beginning of October, predominantly Shia Iraqi youth took to the streets, calling for the government’s resignation, and shouting “Out, out Iran, Baghdad remains free!” Portraits of Iran’s Supreme leader and offices of Iran-aligned Shia paramilitary groups were torched. In Iraq’s last elections, Iran-tied militias emerged as kingmaker, where Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, chief of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, negotiated the arrangement that put the current parliament speaker, president, and prime minister in power. The day after protests began, Soleimani flew to Baghdad to head a meeting with security officials in lieu of the prime minister. Soon after, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—a consortium of Iran-aligned militias institutionalized in 2016 by Iraqi parliament—ostensibly deployed snipers in a brutal crackdown leaving at least 165 dead and over six thousand injured.
Despite a brief hiatus upon suppression and the Shia holiday of Arba’een, protests exploded again on October 25, as anti-sectarian demonstrators rejected the Tehran dominated Shia establishment whom they hold accountable for the country’s decay. In Baghdad, thousands amassed in Tahrir square waving Iraqi flags. In Karbala, protesters stormed the Iranian consulate and raised an Iraqi flag. In the south, disgruntled Iraqis set ablaze dozens of PMF buildings including those belonging to Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Badr factions. Demonstrators are seen punching bloodied pictures of Iran’s supreme leader and Soleimani. Protests show no sign of abatement as thousand of Iraqis from all backgrounds flooded the streets of Baghdad this Friday, despite the brutal security crackdown which has left over 250 people dead over the month. Soleimani has interfered again, this time to prevent the ouster of Iraqi prime minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi.
Iran has transformed Iraq into a client state economically and politically dependent on its neighbor. Instead of working toward a self-sufficient Iraq, the theocracy has turned its former enemy into a dumping ground for Persian products and proxies. Protests erupted last year in the oil-rich city of Basra, when Iran turned off a power line in the region. Seeing a conspiracy behind Iran’s industrial hegemony at the expense of Iraqi independence, Basra residents repeated “Iran out!” as they burned Iranian flags, the Iranian consulate, and headquarters of Iran-linked militias.
Last summer, PMF forces refused to heed the Iraqi prime minister’s orders for them to integrate into the national army. Instead, they continue to levy illegal taxes at checkpoints, reaping an estimated $300,000 a day from illegal taxation, according to one report. They’ve been smuggling fuel from Basra and allegedly other towns like Qayyarah. These groups are making millions selling scrap metal retrieved from the battlefield instead of using the materials to reconstruct war-torn areas. Militias are meddling in ports and seizing state assets. Encouraged by Tehran, Iran-backed Shia proxies have taken a page from Hezbollah’s playbook, dominating government service departments such as health and education ministries to build allegiance through patronage, neglecting those not dedicated to Iran’s political-theological aims. Sunnis have died in Baghdad for example, because Shias controlling hospitals and clinics refused to treat members of the opposite sect.
Similarly, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri resigned on Tuesday amid mass anti-government protests that have been rocking Lebanon since October 17. Citizens of all ages and faiths have called for a revolution citing widespread corruption and economic mismanagement. Lebanon’s debt is expected to swell to over 150 percent of GDP by the year’s end.
Unprecedentedly, some in Hezbollah’s Shia base joined the call for an overhaul of the entire political system. Shia protesters torched Hezbollah offices in the group’s stronghold of Nabatieh in the country’s south. This should come as no surprise—Hezbollah has been squeezed by the maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Income from the Islamic Republic has fallen, obliging Hezbollah to reduce wages for its fighters and social services for its constituents. Iran’s largess accounts for 70 percent of the group’s income, previously upward of $700 million annually. In a 2016 speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah reassured his followers that “As long as Iran has money, we have money.” Add to that, sanctions on Hezbollah have made many Lebanese banks toxic.
Two million demonstrators flooded the streets in a country of only 4.5 million. “The people are one” they sang—a blow to Iran who fans the flames of sectarianism at the expense of Lebanon’s national sovereignty. Tens of thousands of protesters formed a 170-kilometer human chain on Sunday, connecting north and south in a sign of unity. This is one of Iran’s worst nightmares. Nasrallah has come out against the protests, sending hundreds of his supporters to terrorize protestors in the streets of Beirut. The Lebanese army has in turn deployed to protect demonstrators who have defied Nasrallah’s threats, chanting “All of them means all of them. Nasrallah is one of them,” in denunciation of an entire political caste.
As Hezbollah has become the most influential player in Lebanese politics today; its leaders deserve much credit for the country’s corruption. In addition to their monopoly of violence, the group and its allies won at least seventy of parliament’s 128 seats in the last elections. The results were hailed “a victory” for the “the resistance” referring to the Iran-controlled anti-Western power bloc that includes Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Houthis. This demonstrates that Hezbollah’s true allegiance is to Iran’s clerical kingdom, not Lebanon. Meanwhile, Iran and its allies in Iraq and Lebanon are blaming recent unrest on foreign interference from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the Zionists.
To engineer contiguous allegiance to the new Persian empire, especially along the land bridge for Iranian weapons, the Islamic Republic and its proxies are demographically engineering the region, converting or ousting Sunnis in strategic areas of Syria, while expelling Christians from their homes in Iraq. Tehran has glutted these territories with Iranian institutions, goods, resources, and contractors, creating cultural and economic spheres of influence, which are in part an effort to circumvent sanctions.
To be sure, the anthropologist Narges Bajoghli, argues that the key to Iran’s ability to galvanize these groups is the narrative of a shared fight against the shackles of foreign occupation. The Islamic Republic of Iran, after all, was founded just forty years ago, in a self-proclaimed anti-colonial revolution marrying Islam and Marxism. Though Tehran may call its network the “axis of resistance,” in practice, it appears to be the textbook definition of imperialism. Yet as recent unrest in Baghdad, Beirut, and Tehran indicate, Iran’s colonial model is under severe strain.
How will this end? Lebanon’s previous fight for independence, the Cedar Revolution, was ignited by a car bomb that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Mr. Hariri irked some for drafting and supported UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarming of all militias in the country, including Hezbollah. Six years later, a UN tribunal indicted four Lebanese Hezbollah members for the murder. While the revolution drove Syria out, thanks to a series of targeted assassinations and intimidation, Hezbollah remained and has emerged an even more powerful force in the country. In 2008, civil unrest led to Hezbollah’s armed seizure of Beirut. Hezbollah and Iran have poured thousands of fighters and billions of dollars into neighboring Syria to help crush the revolt against their Syrian ally. In 2009, Iran’s green movement protests finally ebbed in the face of torture, beatings, and detentions. Exporting the revolution means exporting all the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary means. “We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” Iran’s second most powerful man assured Iraqi officials this month. “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”
Eliora Katz is Middle East analyst at a think tank in Washington, DC. She was previously a Bartley Fellow at the Wall Street Journal.